BOISE – Idaho could spend tens of millions more on public schools, raise pay for teachers and state workers, and restore services to the poor and disabled – all while still balancing its budget next year with 10 percent to spare, the state’s former longtime chief economist said Monday.
Mike Ferguson joined with two former state school superintendents – Jerry Evans, a Republican, and Marilyn Howard, a Democrat – to release an alternative state budget that would boost school spending next year by 8.3 percent, instead of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed 2.9 percent. The three were joined by two members of Otter’s school reform task force, urging lawmakers to consider the plan.
Evans, who is tied for the longest-serving Idaho schools chief at 16 years, said he listened to Otter’s State of the State message, and “I was astounded at the higher priority for rainy-day funds and for tax relief, while all along proclaiming that education is our highest priority.”
The proposed alternative budget would leave out an additional $71.7 million Otter wants to deposit into state savings accounts, along with $30 million the governor designated for possible tax relief, such as income tax cuts for corporations and top earners or an increase in the property tax exemption for business equipment.
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said skipping those items “does free up a fairly good-sized amount of money.” But, she said, “When the governor gave his budget, those were priorities.”
Bell noted that lawmakers who served during the recession know how far the state had to reach into savings.
“I don’t think not having the tax relief is a very big issue. It’s the right thing to do when you can,” she said. “I think the difficult part will be backing off on the amount of savings, because of where we’ve been.”
Idaho lawmakers approved $20 million in tax cuts last year by removing much of the property tax from business equipment; a year earlier, they granted $35 million a year in permanent tax cuts by lowering the top income tax rate for the highest earners and for corporations.
But school budgets have been crimped since the recession. This year, 94 of the state’s 115 school districts have turned to voters for local property tax increases to help fund operations, and 39 districts have gone to a four-day school week to save money.
Howard, who was Idaho’s elected state schools superintendent for eight years, said everywhere she goes in the state, “people come up to me to tell me how unhappy they are with the way that state government is treating our schools.”
“Harm has been done,” she said.
Even with the boosts outlined under Ferguson’s plan, Howard noted, Idaho’s public schools still would get less money from the state next year than they got in 2009.
Ferguson said he analyzed the governor’s budget and prepared an alternative “that reflects a different set of priorities.”
Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, was intrigued by the proposal. “It sounds like something I’d like to see the numbers on,” Goedde said. “It’s an interesting coalition, if Jerry Evans and Marilyn Howard are both on board.”
Ferguson, who retired from the state in 2010 after 25 years as its chief economist, now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonprofit funded by the Northwest Area Foundation whose mission is to provide information and analysis regarding the state’s finances.